Starting with the ’90s era of the first hypersexed hip-hop videos, storytellers started humanizing the reality behind the exotic club industry. Way before Hustlers set off Oscar buzz for J.Lo last year, Hollywood rolled out Magic Mike, Chocolate City, The Players Club and more. Novels like Méta Smith’s The Rolexxx Club showed readers the flip side to making it rain under low lights and booming beats: namely, paying bills and the daily grind of the stripper lifestyle. Ex-dancers like Cardi B have also pulled back the veil about life on the pole. On July 12, say hello to the Starz network drama P-Valley: a Mississippi Delta-located series that takes the deepest dive yet into the sisterhood of women body-waving and booty shaking in the Dirty South.
Playwright Katori Hall (best known for her reimagination of Dr. Martin Luther King’s last 24 hours, Broadway’s The Mountaintop) first debuted Pussy Valley in 2015, as a stage play at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. Her sprawling story centers on the retirement of the Pynk strip club’s seasoned veteran dancer Mercedes (Brandee Evans) and the arrival of tortured newbie Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson), set amidst the melodrama of keeping the club away from greedy real estate developers.
Brandee Evans and Katori Hall recently spoke with EBONY about the mainstreaming and stereotyping of the adult entertainment industry, the importance of P-Valley’s all-female directors and more.
EBONY: Tell us about the stage play Pussy Valley, and how it evolved into the P-Valley series.
Katori Hall: I’m a Southern gal from Memphis, Tennessee, and I grew up going to strip clubs. So the world wasn’t necessarily foreign to me. It was actually part of my coming of age. Lots of celebrations there and meeting up with friends. We would come into this space and see these women up on the pole in their power, in their strength, in their femininity. And we were like, “Oh my goodness, I wish I could do what she can do.” Because it looked like super-sheroes. The art of exotic dancing, it’s high level the kinds of pole tricks that they do.
I tried to take a pole-dancing class, and I ended up not doing very well. I’m actually kinda clumsy. [laughter] That was kind of like the entry point for me: “I am going to write a story about this world.” So I embarked upon a very long journey. I ended up going to 40 strip clubs. I talked to 40 women, because I thought it was incredibly important for me to listen to as many stories as I possibly could. I really wanted to get the portrayal of this world right. All of this research culminated into a play, which was Pussy Valley. The first night I saw it, I was like, “Oh no. This is not a play.” [laughter] It was so much going on. Too many plots, too many characters. I was like, “I need a TV show for this.” The container was bursting.
Starz bought the pitch. I’m so happy I landed there, because they allowed me to hire an extremely diverse writers room. It was beautiful, having gone from staff writer on a show called Legends in 2014, and then given this opportunity to actually run my own show and focus on my own vision.
EBONY: Like Jessica Jones and Queen Sugar, all the directors on P-Valley are women. What conversations did you have with them about the female gaze?
Katori Hall: A show about the strip club world could go horribly awry. I think we’ve seen the male gaze version of that many times over. I felt the reason why it’s never been successful is because these women are real human beings and we never get inside their experience. The fact that we were able to think strategically about camera framing, camera work and cinematography allowed us to funnel the audience’s attention to make sure that we were walking in the high heels of the women. We were always with them, whether through POV shots or making sure that if there was nudity, the nudity didn’t get in the way of the story, that it was always in service to the story.
And so we had conversations, we mulled over shot lists to make sure that we were pushing up against this history of images of women—and particularly Black women—that were hypersexualized.
Brandee Evans: Katori, of course, made that final decision, choosing all female directors. I’ve heard her say many times that her first question was: What is your process on the female gaze? It’s very important. She wanted this to be shot beyond the bodies, beyond just seeing half-dressed women dance around on a stage. That’s not what P-Valley is. I think that’s the misconception that people are thinking about this show and about anything in general when you say “stripper.” Having those female directors come in made it comfortable for all of us actors on set. They brought a motherly feel.
EBONY: What’s the biggest stereotype about the strippers’ world?
Katori Hall: I think the biggest stereotype is that all of them are drug addicts and broken and got low self-esteem. Don’t get me wrong: there are women who deal with substance abuse. There are women who are struggling to survive. There are women who are not only dancing but also having sex for money. That does exist in the world. But there is definitely a spectrum. What P-Valley is trying to do is to show that everyone is doing it for a reason, and there’s a kind of individualistic perspective that needs to be investigated.
With each character—Mercedes, Autumn Night, Miss Mississippi, Gidget—we’re really getting a very humane portrayal of why women choose this profession or allow the profession to choose them. At the end of the day, people have to survive. People have to feed their kids, pay for school, take care of their ailing grandmother. When you’re in a situation where there aren’t a lot of options for you, and you look a certain way, and you know you could make $1,000 in one night versus $115 at McDonald’s, what choice are you going to make? The show is just as much about the economics of the club as it is about the economics of America, and how there is still a community of us who are struggling when it comes to class in this country.
EBONY: Out of Hustlers, The Players Club, Striptease, Showgirls, Magic Mike and the rest, which movie showed the most accurate depiction of the strip club world?
Katori Hall: There’s a little truth in all of them. I liked all of them for different reasons. People throw shade at Showgirls all the time, but I really loved the spectacle that is in that movie. Now do I absolutely agree with every shot? No.[laughter]
But the sense of spectacle, theatricality and camp is very much a part of the strip club experience.
In terms of the pieces that have been done in the past that I think that P-Valley has a lot in common with, I definitely think we are a descendant of The Players Club. The fact that that was set in a Black Southern strip club, that we also have that tension between an old G and a new G. I think we are sister to Hustlers as well. Even though their movie was set in a northern strip club and was about battling corporate culture, I think what’s very similar is that they’re both tackling economics and how there are some people who come out on top and a lot of people who come out on the bottom. And sometimes it’s women who are put in a place of exploitation. I feel as though both stories have created real estate to talk about how some women can use this very exploitative space to gain financial freedom for themselves.
EBONY: Why do you think even suburban housewives are embracing things like strippercise and twerk lessons, and the mainstream in general is more willing to pull back the curtain on this world?
Katori Hall: I think it has a lot to do with the explosion of women who have garnered a large amount of success having come out of the strip club. I think about Cardi B’s impact, the fact that she will tell you herself that stripping saved her life. There is a video online when she’s talking about how she was able to save up enough money to move out of the apartment she shared with a very abusive boyfriend. To see her rise and ascension has been very inspiring. I was following her when she was a dancer down in Philly! I was on Insta already following her; I’ve been stanning for a real long time. So it’s been really incredible to see her influence and impact.
Also the hip-hop world, the fact that so much of the music that hit the airwaves at a certain time impacted the style of hip-hop music [and] came directly out of the strip club. Southern hip-hop—with the crunk and the trap—it comes all out of the strip club world. The influence of how it’s changed American music has been very profound.
I always circle back to this: at the Super Bowl, J.Lo was on a pole! She was on a stripper pole. That was so emblematic of how mainstream the stripper has become in our society. The fact that in the middle of one of the most American traditions, she showed to the world that “I can be sexy and stand in my power in front of millions of people” sent a strong message that the reign of the stripper is going to be here for a long time.
Brandee Evans: I think people are starting to realize that it’s a sport. Women are competing at national levels on these poles. I’ve been to the competitions and watched them, and they’re starting to respect it. It’s just like gymnastics on a pole. I think people are starting to see: Oh, okay, just because she’s on a pole doesn’t mean that she doesn’t value herself. I’ve heard things like that. That’s her way of empowering herself and finding her inner sexy. Some people find their inner sexy by going to a spa. These ladies find their inner sexy on the pole. I think all of us just want to be confident. We’re all women. We’re all the same when we shed these clothes and whatever is on the outside. We’re all the same, and I think that people are starting to pay attention.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Harlem-based author of the upcoming Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar (St. Martin’s Press). Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram at @MMLunlimited.